Thursday, August 4, 2011

Ana learns to love the Mexican observance of El Día de los Muertos

We may not know many specifics of the human society on the planet Thomo, but we can be sure of certain features in general. Families are important; ancestors and descendants are important. The arts--music, painting, poetry, literature, and so forth, are important. Religion is important. So is food. Security, love, manners, means of getting along, are very important.

We would expect when Ana Darcy (née Anneyn Darshiell) came to Earth she recognized the importance of those things in our society, even if she was unfamiliar with the details. (Her first impressions are recorded in Distant Cousin.) After all, where her people had one basic set of beliefs and customs, we have thousands of cultures and languages and cuisines. These were an unimaginably rich treasure for her to explore. They still are.

Given that she settled in southern New Mexico in an Anglo/Hispanic area, it stands to reason that she would be intimately exposed to the customs of both those cultures. One Mexican tradition struck her as so appropriate to her own society on Thomo that she adopted it herself, immediately. This customary observance might seem strange to the English-speaking world, enough so to deserve a note of explanation here: the custom of El Día de los Muertos, the day of the dead.

The origin of the observance lies some 400 years in the past, with the arrival of Spaniards in Mexico. The Spaniards--Catholic, of course--already observed All Souls' Day, the day following All Saints' Day. They blended this observance into the indigenous Indian celebration of their ancestors. The result is El Día de los Muertos, in effect, a Catholic celebration with Aztec overtones, among others. (This process, common in Catholicism, is called syncretism.)

There is nothing morbid about it--it is a joyous remembrance of one's ancestors. In the English-speaking world, we remember those who went before to some degree, with perhaps a few photos or paintings, a hymn or two, perhaps, and, if we're really thorough, a reading of old correspondence or sharing of family stories with younger family members. In Mexico, this process is formalized and elaborate. Cemeteries are cleaned up and decorated. Whole families spend the day there, have picnics and music, and decorate their houses with altars and flowers. Unlike Halloween, death is regarded as another phase of life, something to be commemorated and revered. Even food and drink are provided, for the spirits of those ancestors.

In Ana's Thoman society, each generation is numbered and remembered individually. There are many epic poems about deeds and persons of the past, somewhat like the ancient Greeks, which keep the past alive and help guide people into the future. Ana herself is the subject of one of these epics (in Distant Cousin: Regeneration). In any case, Ana instantly understood the importance of El Día de los Muertos, and enthusiastically adopted it. (Many Anglo families have as well. Being Catholic is not required for remembering one's ancestors!) The appropriateness of Ana's observation of El Día de los Muertos was featured in Distant Cousin: Reincarnation.

Below are two photos of observances of an El Día de los Muertos celebration (a third is above, at top). These three, from central Mexico, show a cemetery, elaborately decorated and crowded with celebrants, musicians, and the like. (You may right click these to open in another window to better see the details.)

The two below show observances in Mexican homes.

This one shows an altar in a college Spanish classroom in the United States. One of the students evidently remembered an ancestor who enjoyed weight lifting (left foreground).

And here is an altar in a non-Catholic Anglo household, with photos of ancestors, flowers, and items those ancestors enjoyed--including a bottle of liquor, center rear.

If anyone is interested in trying this custom, nothing could be simpler. Several days before November second, merely set out photos or representations of one's dear departed, add characteristic items they enjoyed, along with flowers and candles. Light the candles each night. You will find yourself thinking of those who preceded you more than you ever have before!

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